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Ken Early: Guardiola relief after avoiding biggest disappointment of career

Liverpool can feel like brave losers after title slipped away on final day

At 5:33pm, Kevin De Bruyne swung a heavy leg at Raheem Sterling’s cross from the right and the ball wafted high over the Aston Villa crossbar.

Four minutes had passed since Philippe Coutinho’s brilliant finish had given Villa a scarcely believable 2-0 lead. Ever since Villa had sauntered almost casually forward and scored with virtually their only attack of the first half, destiny had seemed to be against City.

Even Villa's debutant goalkeeper, Robin Olsen, deputising for the injured Emi Martinez, had an Anfield link of sorts: he was the man Roma had signed to replace Alisson after they sold him to Liverpool in 2018. Now Coutinho, a frequent scorer against City for Liverpool, had delivered the goal that looked certain to send the title to his former club. On the sideline, the strings holding the ancient Slip albatross around Steven Gerrard's neck were coming loose at last.

The goal was a kind of alchemy that instantly transformed every aspect of the game

City had never come back from two goals down to win a match under Pep Guardiola. If even Kevin de Bruyne was succumbing to the general mood of paralysis, what hope of an unprecedented comeback now?

There followed a series of events that somehow felt both incredible and inevitable at the same time. City, who have often lost big Champions League matches by conceding goals in sudden flurries, found the strength to fling themselves again at Villa and win one of the most memorable title races with one of the great goal-flurries of all time.

The catalyst was the elusive running of Ilkay Gündogan, who had been on the pitch only eight minutes as a replacement for Bernardo Silva when he turned up at the back post to meet Sterling's cross with a firm header past Olsen.

The goal was a kind of alchemy that instantly transformed every aspect of the game. The crowd’s anxiety became bloodlust, the composure of the Villa players dissolved into panic, while the City players were electrified by an adrenal rush. For 75 minutes they had bashed against Villa’s obstinate defence like a fly against a windowpane; suddenly they were flowing through the cracks of that defence like water.

Two minutes later Oleksandr Zinchenko walked past a challenge on the left and set up Rodri to steer in the equaliser from 20 yards: 12 minutes plus injury-time to score the winner they needed. For City 12 minutes was plenty of time. As it turned out, they needed only two. Tyrone Mings half-cleared Rodri's attempted through-ball into the area just outside the Villa box to the right of the D: in other words, directly into the De Bruyne zone.

Douglas Luiz and Jacob Ramsey were both well positioned to cover but it was De Bruyne who got there first, seizing the decisive moment of the season with one last burst of energy, galloping on to the loose ball, swerving past Mings and firing it towards the far post where Gündogan was arriving again to finish. Gerrard's nostrils again filled with the familiar stink of rotting albatross.

City's only problem now was that they had turned it around too quickly – there was still just enough time left for something cruel and crazy to happen. In the end referee Michael Oliver seemed to take pity on Guardiola, who was appealing frantically for the final whistle, and blew the match up 26 seconds over the four minutes, although Ederson had just wasted considerably more time than that pretending to be injured.

Guardiola’s face crumpled into sobs as the immense stress of the last two weeks flooded out of his body in a sweet tidal surge of relief. It was just a few minutes since he had come face to face with the most brutal disappointment of his career. Losing or drawing would have meant a season that until late April had promised a Treble would have finished with nothing at all.

He had given his players three days off during the week, perhaps sensing that at this point of the season, intensive coaching and preparation could do more harm than good. Even his programme notes struck a faintly manic tone: “Dear friends, there is just one thing we are not allowed to do this afternoon: we must not fail to enjoy this moment. We will regret it forever if we are not here as one.”

Having subliminally established the themes of failure and regret, he had then picked the wrong team, a tradition of his in the most decisive games, with the slow Fernandinho at centre back and John Stones on the right. A merely competent performance from Ollie Watkins and the damage to City could have been worse than 1-0 by half-time, when Guardiola replaced the struggling Fernandinho with Zinchenko and put Stones back in the middle where he should have been from the start.

When you are not bound by the same laws of financial gravity as your competitors, winning the league is par

As City laboured in the second half, Guardiola seemed the most nervous man in the stadium. The players carried him over the line. It was of course Guardiola's substitutes, Sterling and Gündogan, who turned the tide of the game, but City's bench is so stacked that Jack Grealish, the most expensive Premier League player ever, sat there unused. If Gerrard was able to bring on substitutes of the calibre of Sterling and Gündogan rather than Ashley Young and Marvelous Nakamba, he might find himself credited more often with tactical masterstrokes.

That disparity of resources illustrates the nature of what City have achieved, and the particular kind of pressure Guardiola was under. One of the ways he had dealt with the disappointment of being knocked out of the Champions League was by arguing that the Premier League was a more difficult trophy to win. Not for Manchester City managers, it isn’t: each of the three coaches appointed by the Abu Dhabi ownership has delivered the Premier League title.

And so they should. City are now the top-earning club in the world, raking in more sponsorship cash than clubs who even Guardiola acknowledges are much more widely supported. When you are not bound by the same laws of financial gravity as your competitors, winning the league is par.

Second place means different things to City and Liverpool. Liverpool can feel like brave losers. City would have just felt like losers. Last week, Guardiola explained how it felt to win titles year after year: “The satisfaction is there of course, but after one, two, three days – it’s almost already forgotten. And it has to be like that.”

But while success might pass and leave hardly a trace, failure leaves scars. Ask Steven Gerrard about that. And when you have been staring at the bitterest bogey of your career, there’s no sweeter joy than roaring back to a respectable par.